Why Success Doesn’t Mean You’re Living a Fulfilled Life

UPDATED: April 2, 2022
PUBLISHED: September 8, 2021
Why Success Doesn’t Mean You’re Living a Fulfilled Life

The classic book What Color Is Your Parachute? that debuted in 1970 helped people choose a career that matched their interests and abilities. Today, that question might aptly be replaced with the question: What color is a fulfilled life?

Although Parachute helped us think through our career paths, today’s world is far more complex and speedy, requiring individuals to think both about their overall life goals and plans, and to be willing to continuously adjust them throughout their lives.

In a study by the Metrus Institute, nearly every respondent harbored a desire to become fulfilled—to reach a state of long-term happiness and conscientiously live up to his or her potential. For most, this translated to “becoming all you can be.” Interestingly, nearly four-fifths of respondents did not feel totally fulfilled.

Even more interesting is most of the respondents sought to become successful in something—a career in business, government or entrepreneurship; relationships with family, friends or loved ones; avocations or a religious or spiritual goal. But only a small number felt totally fulfilled.

Among the successful ones, five factors separated those who were the most from the least fulfilled:

1. They have a life plan.

The most fulfilled people talk about a life vision or life goals that frame everything they do, not just professionally, but at home and in other aspects of their lives. Many of the successful but unfulfilled talk about chasing money or titles or what others expect of them.

For example, Ted was a bright student in a family of intelligent kids, who was raised shadowing his father’s successful transportation business. Ted earned a solid education from a top-notch school, particularly enjoying philosophy and medieval arts. But then Ted got the call from his father to return to the business because they needed someone who was smart enough to manage a product line. Although Ted found moderate success in his role, he was not fulfilling his dreams.

2. They have balance.

One of the biggest defining factors is life balance. The most fulfilled think about their overall life balance—career, relationships, family, education, health, hobbies, religion or spirituality—whereas many of the less fulfilled focus unilaterally on work. Later in life, many regret overemphasizing work over other things in their life.

“I missed my three daughters growing up—something I can never replace,” one respondent said. Another said, “I moved six times for my husband’s job, and I never had a chance to develop my own career.” And a cancer survivor told me that she completely rebalanced her life after remission. When she saw how much was on the line, it gave her a new perspective on what she really wanted out of life.

3. They adapt.

In today’s world, success and fulfillment are often a function of our changing context. When I started working for Bell System—the universal phone monopoly at the time—a manager told me I could have a job for life supporting the payphone business. At the time, it felt true, but today, most millennials have never even seen a payphone.

Change is ubiquitous, and the most fulfilled people are able to morph their ambitions and dreams along the way. Although they don’t sacrifice their values, they adapt to the times, anticipate when a job is going to hit a brick wall or when a relationship is souring. The most fulfilled face these challenges, make adjustments, move on and recreate their future. The most unfulfilled, who have been successful in the past, increasingly find themselves in professional quicksand, unable to change and adapt to new circumstances.

4. They nurture their bodies.

Although health and wellness might seem intuitive, it was one of the key things that many people, including type-A personalities, referenced. So many people are so riveted by professional success that they forget to take care of themselves—they fail to exercise and eat healthy, abstain from overindulgence, or manage stress levels.

One of the respondents said every day was a max-stress event, eventually leading to a near breakdown. She was one of the lucky ones, who upon getting pregnant took a leave of absence, which gave her the space to realize she was in a rat race that was killing her through poor health habits. For many, it takes a heart attack or similar crisis to drive the point home—often too late.

5. They give back.

Baby boomers who have reached a reflective stage in their lives find this factor most important. Many of the most fulfilled talked about giving back to others, enabling others to become successful and fulfilled. Many have volunteered as mentors or coaches, even when it’s not part of their jobs. Some have served on not-for-profit or not-for-pay boards. Others volunteered for organizations, such as Rosie’s Theatre Kids, a group that helps inner-city kids find themselves through song and dance.

After talking with some of Rosie’s volunteers, I discovered they had found kids who were homeless, who left abusive homes, a background of drug abuse and gang violence. I watched these same kids perform, and after talking to some of them, I realized they had begun to see hope, a new beginning and a chance to become fulfilled in their futures—something that would have been impossible if it were not for those giving back.

Time is our one universal currency—we each have 24 hours in the day, and we must choose how to spend them. Take a little time to map out the activities that you spend your time on.

Ask yourself:

  • Which of my activities brings me fulfillment?
  • Which ones bring me professional success, but not necessarily fulfillment?
  • Which ones are time-sucks that are inhibiting my long-term vision or fulfillment goals?

Apply these fulfillment factors. They just might help increase your happiness, productivity and inner peace in your work and life. And they just might touch the lives of those around you, allowing them to find happiness, productivity and inner peace, too.

This article was published in November 2016 and has been updated. Photo by

William Schiemann

William A. Schiemann, Ph.D. is CEO of Metrus Group. He is a thought leader in human resources, employee engagement and fulfillment, and the author of Fulfilled! Critical Choices—Work, Home, Life. For more information, connect with Dr. Schiemann at WSchiemann.com, or on Twitter.